WASHINGTON – Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s outspoken criticism of “CIA interference” in a congressional investigation is in sharp contrast to her defense of an intelligence-gathering community that some say tramples on civil liberties.
Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, has fretted that the public was losing confidence “in the dedicated men and women of our intelligence community” because of a string of disclosures that she said often lacked important context. In particular, she has defended the National Security Agency’s collection of massive amounts of phone records, revealed in detail by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden
Now the California Democrat has turned critical, claiming that Congress was the target of intelligence-gathering. In a Senate floor speech Tuesday she accused the CIA of criminal activity in searching a computer network set up so that lawmakers could review top secret documents provided for an investigation into the use of harsh interrogation techniques.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which often has been a critic of Feinstein, called her speech a “forceful, necessary and historic defense of the constitutional principle of separation of powers.”
“After so many years of Congress being unable or unwilling to assert its authority over the CIA, Sen. Feinstein today began to reclaim the authority of Congress as a check on the executive branch,” Christopher Alders, senior legislative counsel for the ACLU, said.
Over the past year Feinstein has credited the intelligence community’s collection of phone call “metadata” with stopping about a dozen terrorist attacks in the United States. She said lawmakers were briefed on the data collection, and the overwhelming majority of records are never looked at, and are regularly destroyed.
Feinstein also has also been highly critical of Snowden and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, two people that some view as whistle-blowers and defenders of the public’s civil liberties.
She said last summer that Snowden’s actions were “an act of treason” and that he should be prosecuted. Some two years earlier, she wrote a letter with then-Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond, R-Mo., asking Attorney General Eric Holder to prosecute Assange for espionage for releasing classified U.S. documents.
“The unauthorized release of this information, including the recent release of approximately 250,000 State Department documents, is a serious breach of national security and could be used to severely harm the United States and its worldwide interests,” the senators wrote.
As Intelligence Committee chairwoman, Feinstein pushed for a review of the CIA’s policy of detaining and interrogating suspected terrorists. It is that review that was at the center of Feinstein’s speech Tuesday.
She said she went public after learning that the CIA had barred access to more than 900 documents, or parts of documents, that it originally had provided to the committee as part of the review.
“In short, this was the exact sort of CIA interference in our investigation that we sought to avoid at the outset,” she said.
Feinstein, who at 80 is the oldest member of the Senate, is serving her fourth full term after easily winning re-election in 2012. Heading the Senate Intelligence Committee has allowed her to sharpen her credentials as an independent, though she is a reliable Democratic vote on most domestic issues.
“I feel I have an obligation to do everything I can to keep this country safe,” Feinstein told The New York Times last year in an interview. “So put that in your pipe and smoke it.”